Solitary confinement in Northern Ireland prisons fits UN definition of torture

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PRISONERS in Northern Ireland spent 15 consecutive days or longer in solitary confinement on over 600 occasions during a three-year period.

According to the United Nations (UN), over 15 days in solitary confinement is classed as torture.

UN Rules, known as the Mandela Rules, are a minimum standard which define solitary confinement as the ‘confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact’, with ‘prolonged’ solitary confinement – more than 15 consecutive days – being regarded as a form of torture.

Between November 1, 2016 and October 31, 2019 there were 611 occasions when prisoners in Northern Ireland spent 15 days or longer in our prisons’ ‘Care and Supervision Units (CSUs)’.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) declined to address a question asking if it recognised that the CSUs met the UN definition of solitary confinement.

However, Northern Ireland’s former Prisoner Ombudsman, Tom McGonigle, previously told The Detail that CSUs were formerly known as ‘segregation blocks’ and that prisoners knew the units simply as ‘the boards’.

He added: “But they know what it is. I know what it is. It’s solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day.”

Director of Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, Patrick Corrigan, told The Detail: “There is widespread international agreement about the harm caused by imprisonment in isolation.

“The UN’s top expert on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment has called for solitary confinement to be used only in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, and for as short a time as possible.”

Mr Corrigan also said that Justice Minister Naomi Long “must ensure” that the NIPS has not permitted “extended use of solitary confinement to go beyond what is necessary for the safety of prisoners and staff, and to become a breach of international human rights standards”.

He added: “Prolonged solitary confinement is cruel, but in Northern Ireland it is all too usual.”

When questioned, the NIPS declined to say whether any of these 611 stays in the CSU constituted a shorter length of time in solitary confinement than what the UN defines as torture.

However, The Detail can confirm that many of the cases we have uncovered represented stays far longer than what the UN deems as the torture threshold.

The prisoner who spent the longest in the CSU, in the three-year-period we examined, stayed in the Maghaberry unit for almost nine months.

The Detail previously reported on a prisoner remaining there for five consecutive years.

Juan Mendez, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, told The Detail that stays of over 15 days in solitary confinement cause, the “kind of pain and suffering that is associated with the definition of torture and cruel, degraded treatment”.

He added: “It’s not just physical torture but mental torture.

“After 15 days the mind starts to work differently and it can have drastic, lasting effects. Even if people don’t go crazy after 15 days, that doesn’t mean it’s not inflicting cruel and unusual punishment.

“It’s important to have a deadline beyond which any legitimate use of solitary confinement is no longer legitimate.”

An NIPS spokesperson maintained that prisoners are only kept in the CSU for “such a time as is considered to be absolutely necessary”.

We were also told the initial period of restriction “will not exceed 72 hours” until a request to extend this time is made, which will “only be recommended following a multidisciplinary case review” chaired by a prison governor, that “will include” the prisoner.

The spokesperson continued: “This is then considered by an authorising officer from outside of that prison, who will interview the prisoner as part of the process should there be a recommendation for an extension.”

The Green Party’s Rachel Woods told The Detail she has been raising concerns regarding how the CSUs are used for “the last few months” and has engaged with the NIPS “around the issues involved”.

She added that the operation of the CSUs in Northern Ireland prisons are “clearly a matter” that Justice Minister Naomi Long and her department “need to address urgently”.

In 2018, the Royal College of Psychiatrists produced a report on mental health in Northern Ireland prisons.

The report referenced the 2013 shutting down of a dedicated healthcare wing in Maghaberry (Northern Ireland’s largest prison) ‘which was used to manage acutely mentally unwell prisoners’.

The Green Party’s North Down representative referenced this report’s conclusion that, since the closure of the healthcare wing, ‘40% of prisoners who transferred to the regional secure unit were accommodated in the CSU’.

She said: “I have serious concerns about the long-term effects on people's mental health of being in CSUs for extended periods of time.

“The Mandela Rules are there for a reason and we need to look at doing things differently, to achieve better outcomes for prisoners and staff.”

Justice Minister Naomi Long. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Justice Minister Naomi Long. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Freedom of Information (FoI)

A total of 454 prisoners spent 15 days or longer in solitary confinement during the three-year period, with some confined for such periods on multiple occasions.

For instance, four prisoners stayed in the CSU for 15 days or longer on five separate occasions, while one prisoner spent six single stays of 15 days or longer in the CSU.

The Detail uncovered these statistics through a FoI request to the NIPS.

Maghaberry accounted for the most CSU stays of 15 days or longer during this time – with 289 of its prisoners spending 15 days or longer in solitary confinement on 396 occasions.

There were seven occasions when prisoners in Maghaberry spent over half a year in solitary confinement in this three-year-period.

In Magilligan, three prisoners spent over 50 days in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, in Hydebank Wood 11 male prisoners – aged 21 or younger – and two female prisoners, spent one month or longer in the CSU.

In the three-year-period, there was an average of over 150 prisoners spending 15 consecutive days or longer in the CSU per annum. This represents 10% of the current prison population of Northern Ireland.

Mr Mendez, the former UN special rapporteur, said the Mandela Rules on solitary confinement constitute “soft law” in international terms because they are not formally binding.

He added: “On the other hand, they’ve been widely cited as authoritative in terms of what constitutes the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners.”

Mr Mendez said the use of solitary confinement for less than 15 days was legitimate “for very severe disciplinary breaches” such as when a prisoner attacks another inmate or guard.

However when looking at the statistics, which The Detail has uncovered, he said: “It sounds like, in Northern Ireland, it (solitary confinement) is not used as a last resort disciplinary punishment, and it should be."

The NIPS told The Detail the service takes the safety and well-being of all prisoners “very seriously”.

We were also informed that the CSU plays an “important role” in keeping individuals away from the general prison population “in the interest of good order and discipline or for their own protection”, and in providing an “environment for tailored care and interaction planning, partner agency engagement, signposting and referrals to assist in addressing the underlying issues leading to harmful behaviour”.

The NIPS spokesperson added: “An individual may be placed in the CSU as a result of breaching prison rules including engaging in harmful behaviours, violence, disruptive, aggressive or anti-social behaviour, and drug seeking, taking or trafficking.

“Every case is considered on an individual basis and there is a stringent and transparent process in place to manage and review all cases. The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) is also advised when a person is placed in the CSU.”

The three respective IMBs for each of Northern Ireland’s prisons – Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank Wood – have a role with regards to the CSUs.

IMB members, whose work is voluntary and unpaid, are drawn from the general public and ‘act as independent observers of all aspects of the prison regime’.

We were told by the NIPS that IMB members and prison staff visit the CSU on a daily basis and that all the CSU’s prisoners are assessed every day by a nurse.

In its 2018/19 annual report, the IMB for Maghaberry found a ‘high portion’ of prisoners held in the CSU are there ‘on suspicion of holding illegal substances or items on their person’.

However, the IMB was ‘concerned to find that...only 35% of those held on suspicion, actually produced a find’ of illegal substances or items.

The report also states the IMB was concerned that the appeal process in adjudications with regards to prisoners’ stays in the CSU is both ‘inadequate and not transparent’.

The NIPS spokesperson, however, maintained that all cases are reviewed weekly by CSU managers “which allows for any application to be ended if the specific circumstances change”.

We were also told by the NIPS that its monthly oversight meetings were “recently described as an example of international best practice by the International Committee for the Red Cross” and that the CSU is subject to regular inspections, with recent Criminal Justice Inspectorate reports acknowledging some improvements.

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